As Haute As It Gets: Alancha
Time Out says
Serious foodies in this town should be glad to know that they don’t have to wait six months up to a year to get a reservation in any of Copenhagen’s gastronomic temples like Noma and Amass, and experience the much ballyhooed New Nordic Cuisine.
A New York Times article characterized the culinary movement that has swept the world in the past five years as “earthy and refined, ancient and modern, both playful and deeply serious,” and it was basically what informed the cooking of Alancha’s chef, Kemal Demirasal. The 18-course degustation dinner at his restaurant was a mind- blowing demonstration of his command of his gastronomic repertoire; foraged, garden-grown, fermented, cured, dried, smoked, pure, simple, fresh, each element of the beautifully- dressed dishes was prepared in a particular form. As for his locavore use of seasonal ingredients, they are at the very core of the Nordic cuisine manifesto.
However, he did divert from the Nordic tenet against theatrical presentation when he resorted to the use of liquid nitrogen, a ubiquitous trick in molecular cuisine, to produce one of the dinner’s wow moments. In that sense, his gastronomic style was not cut-and-dried Scandinavian. Considering, however, that the 34-year-old Izmir native never went to culinary school and mostly learned the intricacy of haute cuisine from his two-year long travel, visiting many of the world’s best 50 restaurants listed by the British magazine Restaurant, his mastery of such eclectic and advanced cooking techniques can only be regarded as a prodigious feat.
Alancha Istanbul is the outpost of the original restaurant that Chef Kemal put up in Alaçatı, the windy Aegean resort town favored by moneyed Turks soured by the jet-set trappings of Bodrum. According to him, he simply woke up one day, stared in the mirror and knew that he had to do something completely different in life. For a six-times national champion windsurfer, that something turned out to be manning the kitchen of a garden restaurant called Barbun, despite the fact that his cooking experience was then limited to preparing meals for his girlfriend and their close friends. Unsurprisingly, the first year became a baptism of fire by the stove, so much so that he took a drastic break to embark on the aforementioned research trip. Upon his return, he was all fired up with ideas and his passion impressed Evren Köprülü, a friend and a loyal Barbun customer. Together they decided to open Alancha, which is an old Turkish word for “grassy area among the trees of a garden” in Alaçatı in 2013.
There was neither grassy area nor trees in the modern Armani Maçka Residence in Nişantaşı, where the Alancha Istanbul occupies the first two floors. Designed by Gürcan Dere of Cacti Architecture and Design, the restaurant’s architecture followed the same uncluttered, functional, and decidedly Scandinavian aesthetics of the Alaçatı original.
In the spacious first floor dining area seating 40 casuala la carte diners, floor-to-ceiling glass walls provided a beautiful view of the Maçka neighborhood. At the bar, a team of professional mixologists was tasked with preparing unusual and delicious concoctions called “cooktails”, all based on the chef’s culinary conceit. And right behind the labeled glass bottles on the bar’s back counter, a window revealed a sci-fi scene of a narrow back room with half-a-dozen white-uniformed staffers going about whatever they were busy doing. That presumably was Alancha's most talked about research department cum test kitchen.
The second floor is the Tasting Room. Planters with herbs lined the left wall of the room while tall perennials stood by the windows and emanated the “back to nature” theme at the core of the Nordic Cuisine philosophy. For a 50-seater room, the noise level was surprisingly pleasant. It seemed as if everyone was intent on getting the most foodie enjoyment out of a tasting menu that was arguably the longest if not the priciest offered hereabouts. The dishes were inspired by various culinary legacies - including Greek, Persian, Minoan, Phoenician, Ottoman and Balkan – and the menu was ostensibly and aptly billed “A journey through Anatolian History.”
I can’t possibly describe in detail each dish of the 18 courses that made up Alancha Tasting Menu. Instead, I’m only mentioning the most memorable moments of what was an amazing culinary experience. The evening's rundown of the courses and the accompanying wines were printed on ordinary white paper, which suggested that the tasting menu changes periodically.
To those wondering how I arrive at the rating of dish I review, I'm basing my evaluation on concept, execution and originality - with each criterion assigned a star.
*: Almost Haute
*: Haute enough
**: Very Haute
***: Really Haute
The meal started with a delicious soup from fermented mushroom and citronella flower served in a white tea-cup- sized bowl. The fermentation heightened the mushroom’s earthy flavor and the citronella laced the soup with a zingy aroma.
Two mussels with a teardrop of fermented garum sauce - an ancient Roman condiment made from fish entrails - and a dash of tarragon oil came atop cleaned pebbles inside a ceramic bowl to which the server poured liquid nitrogen, producing a misty cover that cleared up soon after. The ginger, lemon and garlic marinade of the mollusks gave the sauce a tangy compliment.
The chewy offal was laid on a radish sauce sprinkled with raspberry dust making the dish an interestingly piquant combination.
Baby lettuce ***
The juice of the lettuce was taken and injected back after it was marinated for 24 hours then served in brown butter and spiced up with dill, coriander and celery powder. After this, I would never look at lettuce as just a humble salad vegetable anymore.
Wheat soup **
This was a conversation- stopper when it arrived to the table. Various crunchy grains and legumes were swimming in a gazpacho-like yogurt and mint oil soup inside a molded ice wrapped at the base with a colorful Anatolian scarf. Aside from the marvelous presentation, I found that the cold container somehow put out the tastes of the ingredients.
Sea Bass ***
This was hands-down the most stunning dish in the menu. And the presentation of the fish on a jagged-edged ceramic tablet with Phoenician writings really brought home the theme of discovery. The complex flavors of the sea bass revealed themselves in so many stages. Simply mind-blowing.
Lamb head ***
Lemon flower, mint leaves and parsley-infused oil defined the flavors of meat from lamb cheek and tongue. The jus was wonderfully fresh and light.
Beet & yogurt ***
Lying on a yogurt mousse laced with basil oil, this dessert wasn’t cloyingly sweet despite the honey drizzled on the rice- topped caramelized beetroot. A delightful surprise.